Madhukant Pathak recalls how his now-deceased brother Shashikant was the then 13-year-old MS Dhoni’s first-ever coach in Ranchi at the Harmoo Club, where he watched the Indian captain grow up before his eyes. A first-class umpire for the duration between India’s first World Cup win in 1983 and its most-famous home Test at the Eden Gardens in 2001, Pathak is also friends with several Australian cricketers, notably Mark Waugh.
It was the stylish Aussie in fact who altered the context of the word ‘bowling’ for Pathak, and introduced him to ‘Lawn bowls’, a quaintly laidback sport, so easy-going that it is no surprise that the more elegantly insouciant of Waugh twins was addicted to it.”Most Australian cricketers love lawn bowls, and Mark Waugh, a very dear friend, could spend 3-4 hours playing it, such was his fondness for the sport,” Pathak recalls.
He’s in Glasgow as the coaching-mentor of the 10-member Indian lawn-bowls contingent in a sport that’s as ‘Commonwealth’ and Brit empire, as it gets. But Pathak’s grappling with some distressing problems in his sport, played on the scenic Kelvingrove greens, though these odd troubles will flummox both cricket’s Dhoni and hockey’s Sardar, two sportspersons who you’d think know all that’s there to be known about the wretched green grass.
Firstly, the lawn bowls squads are curiously finding the going mighty tough on natural grass after being accustomed to synthetic carpets. That one should stump Sardar Singh and his hockey mates.
“All our players (mostly from Jharkhand) have always trained on synthetic surfaces, which are faster. But we struggle badly on natural grass because it’s slower and tougher to adapt to since you need to put in a lot of labour and shoulder into the action or you miss the line. We only have one natural green for lawn bowls in India at Kolkata, which is a private club, so outsiders are not allowed,” he rues. “We’re unfortunate to be born in India and play this sport,” he rants.
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Then there’s something that the new winner at Lord’s Dhoni, armed with an Ishant and Bhuvi, will no longer empathise with. “We don’t have world-class bowlers right now,” Pathak says, taking over the mantle of an age-old deficiency.
The best lawn bowls teams use Taylor balls, a posh make in what is a bit of an anachronistic sport. “It bends on grass greens like anything!” Pathak exclaims, as if he’s raving about Bhuvaneshwar’s swing or Ishant’s bounce.
His own ‘Henselites’ used by India, he sulks, don’t bend that much, so the newbies can’t be expected to do much at these Games. Last time around in Delhi, the synthetic surface had hauled Indian women up to the quarterfinals, India’s best finish.
Like all English preoccupations, lawn bowls can change dramatically if it rains. “We’ll definitely lose if it rains!” he declares with a baba-re-baba preamble. “Our players don’t even have raincoats (skin tights), so pray it stays sunny,” he pleads, adding himself to the list of Indian sportspersons who abhor overcast clouds and British showers.
It’s also about someone catching a sniffle and rendered useless for the match in case of sickness in which case India will be a player short since it’s only 5-member men’s and women’s squads.
Pathak’s cup of woes further floweth.
“The best teams come with bowls kits that cost 350 Australian dollars. We managed to put it together in Jharkhand for INR 1000. The team’s travelled to several competitions on its own cost, and this time too, the government sanctioned 30 pounds for each member, and they had to pay 25 pounds from their own pockets,” he adds.
Yet, Pathak’s eternal belief is that lawn bowls is a snug fit for India, and a sport born for Indians to play. “It has zero physical requirements,” he starts. “You need a cool head on your shoulders, and it’s a mixture of billiards and chess. Nothing very taxing, but needs great hand-eye coordination,” he explains.
Promising to make a 12-year-old tribal boy — who’s not in Glasgow — Abhishek Lakra, a Lawn Bowls world champion in 5 years’ time, Pathak hopes his wards can pull off a shock-win that will drag some attention from Lord’s and Oval, to Kelvingrove.
But the odds are stacked against India’s most obscure athletes here at the Commonwealth Games. And there we were thinking, just yesterday, that our bowling melancholy had been lifted once and for all by Ishant Sharma. It was Mark Waugh who altered the context of the word ‘bowling’ for Pathak, and introduced him to ‘lawn bowls’, a quaintly laidback sport, so easy-going that it is no surprise that the more elegantly insouciant of Waugh twins was addicted to it.